Marvin Francis is in the state penitentiary for a 1986 murder.
These days the self-taught artist’s sculptures draw international acclaim and fetch
thousands of dollars. Clearly, this is a difficult paradox to consider, but the key question is:
WHERE IS REDEMPTION?
A recent telephone call from his son forced Seldon Dixon Jr. to dredge up the heinous details of a robbery 20 years ago that left his father mortally wounded outside the family home in Christian County. Three weeks ago, Dixon’s son, Donnie, told his father that that morning’s edition of a western Kentucky newspaper had featured an article touting the achievements of a prison artist. When his son read the man’s name, Dixon’s heart sank. It was Marvin Francis. The same man who had shot his father, a prominent Hopkinsville grocer, four times during a late-night robbery in January 1986.
Not long after that call, Dixon fielded numerous interview requests from media eager to record his reaction about Francis and the improbable twist his life has taken from high school drop-out to convicted murderer to internationally recognized and award-winning artist.
Asked by LEO for comment, Dixon hesitated for a moment. Then, in a voice free from anger but occasionally choked with emotion, he said: “His accomplishments don’t give back what he took from society. Even all these years later, people still come up to me and tell me what my father did for them. People you wouldn’t think would have a problem paying their grocery bill — he’d give them credit. He had such an effect on the community.”
During a trial that lasted nearly two weeks, Francis admitted guilt for his role as the triggerman in the slaying of the 56-year-old father of two. Circuit Judge Tom Soyars sentenced Francis in November 1986 to life without parole for 25 years, plus concurrent 20- and 50-year prison terms on first-degree robbery and second-degree persistent felony offender charges. He was remanded to the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville.
And aside from a few years spent at Northpoint Training Center, a medium security prison in central Kentucky, Francis has inhabited a cell at Eddyville for nearly all of the 21 years he’s been incarcerated.
Self-taught creative genius
Summoned to the warden’s office one day last summer, Francis was more than a little nervous. Such meetings are akin to a visit to the principal’s office times 10. But this time the news was good. Warden Tom Simpson told Francis he’d won first place at the Fourth Annual International Assemblage Artists Competition sponsored by Gallery Twenty-Four in Berlin, Germany. The gallery touts itself as “Europe’s premier gallery for autodidactic and undiscovered artists from around the world.”
Francis, 46, won for a papier-mâché sculpture he calls “Welcome.”
He received 1,000 euros (about $1,280), and his work will be the subject of a 2007 exhibition at Gallery Twenty-Four’s spaces in Berlin and Paris.
“It’s a cell,” the Hopkinsville native said during a recent telephone interview. “It’s a cage and it’s got an inmate in it and it’s got everything that our cells have in it, like lockers, a hotpot and little items. It’s got a welcome mat in front of it.”
Getting Francis to expound upon his artwork requires time and patience. He offers few details unless prodded.
But University of Kentucky law professor Roberta Harding, a proponent of prison art and a supporter of Francis, doesn’t mince words when asked to talk about his art.
“His work is incredible,” she said. “He’s within that school of what’s called self-taught artists. And even though he is self-taught, his creativity is overwhelming. He’s just a creative genius.”
Harding, a Harvard Law School graduate, developed an interest in death row art while working on prisoner-rights cases for a San Francisco law firm. After moving to Kentucky in the early 1990s, she helped form an organized art program at the Green River Correctional Complex in Central City.
She constantly sought new venues for inmate art, and agreed to act as curator for a statewide prison art show at the Lexington Art League shortly after she moved there. Francis’ submissions immediately caught her attention. His talent, she said, was evident.
“He shares a slice of prison life with people, and you learn a lot from the pieces,” she said from her UK law school office. “Many of them are humorous, too. There’s an irony in there. In ‘Welcome,’ for example, he has the inmate dressed in a traditional white-and-black-striped prison uniform, the kind that people see on TV. You have the little miniature chewing tobacco canister and the sink and the toilet, and then you have the welcome mat. It’s just those types of little vignettes of prison life.”
Prison art is nothing new. After all, these are individuals who generally have little to do, and many actively seek ways to escape boredom. Perhaps one of the more infamous inmate artists was mass murderer John Wayne Gacy, who turned out paintings of clowns. But because many prison artists lack formal training and generally have only crude materials to work with, their pieces tend to lack vitality.
That’s what distinguishes Francis’ art from that of other prison artists. Over the years he has learned to embrace his limitations, rather than being constrained by them. For example, unable to get acrylic paints for his pieces, Francis improvised. He used shoe polish.
Three of Francis’ pieces were displayed in Louisville during the recent Good Folk Fest at the Mellwood Arts and Entertainment Center. Artist liaison Scott Scarborough said they were among 60 pieces at the show crafted by prison artists.
“The reason why I invited them to be in the show,” he said, “is the necessity of their resourcefulness. Their tools are limited. They come up with their own recipes for papier-mâché and wood.”
Indeed. While housed at Northpoint, Francis took an art appreciation course and followed the instructor’s suggestion to create a piece of art from whatever materials were on hand. The inmate decided to sculpt a cockatoo. Without access to glue and needing a way to hold his papier-mâché creation together, Francis concocted a paste out of Ramen noodles.
“It’s water and toilet paper all the way up to the final finish,” he said of his design, “and then you put a coat of something on it to hold it together. And that was like a starch coating.”
But to get that coating, Francis had to crush the thin noodles, boil them in a hotpot and allow the liquid to cool. Using this method of papier-mâché, and adding shoe polish for color, Francis completed the cockatoo.
“I just couldn’t believe it came out the way it did,” he said, “because I’d never done anything like that, and it just turned out so well.”
That was 15 years ago. Nowadays, Francis’ most popular pieces, such as the one that won the international art award, plus works included in the permanent collection of the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead, carry a prison theme.
Like Harding, Lexington artist Steve Armstrong also volunteers his time with prison artists. Harding introduced Armstrong to Francis’ work and, in turn, Armstrong recommended that Harding enter the inmate’s work in the Gallery Twenty-Four competition.
“Their definition of assemblage was pretty broad,” Armstrong said. “I also felt Marvin’s work could pretty much hold its own in an international competition. For one thing, his self-expression is (unique). It doesn’t look like anybody else’s.”
While Francis’ work is out of the mainstream, Armstrong said, its allure stems from his attention to detail.
“You can’t just look once at one of his pieces,” Armstrong said. “The more you look at it, the more subtle discoveries you make.”
An unhappy childhood
Family figures prominently in several of Francis’ pieces, including one that was displayed at the Good Folk Fest. In one, several children are atop a horse. Standing nearby is a Dalmatian.
“That’s Duke,” Francis said. “He was my best friend. I wasn’t into sports. I was into animals and the outdoors.”
Francis never comes out and says it, but you get the sense his childhood wasn’t happy. He is reluctant to reveal much about his past, but he does share that his mother died when he was seven.
“My dad killed her,” Francis said matter-of-factly. “He said he was cleaning his gun and shot her with it.” His father never faced charges over the incident.
His voice takes on a sad tone when he says his father then remarried “two or three times.” At 12, Francis went to live with a grandmother in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. He doesn’t give a reason for the move but does admit, with a nervous laugh, that as a young teen he started getting into trouble — skipping school, drinking beer and smoking marijuana.
The cockatoo he sculpted back in 1991 reflected a desire he once had to be a veterinarian, he said, but that dream ended when he dropped out of high school at 15 and made a solo move to Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Francis joined the Navy in 1980, but left the military three years later. “Family problems got me out,” he said. “I was in San Diego and my wife and kid were in Tennessee. I couldn’t deal with the separation.”
He and his wife later divorced. His son is 28 and lives in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. Francis hasn’t seen him in 25 years.
Francis has two sisters, with whom he does have contact. The details of their lives after he moved out of the family home are fuzzy. He thinks the girls were made wards of the state, but he can’t recall when or for how long. Francis said the pair were taken in by an aunt and uncle at one point.
At any rate, the beer binges and pot smoking continued into adulthood, and on the night of Jan. 14, 1986, an inebriated Francis and an accomplice, both wearing masks, jammed the door locks on Seldon Dixon Sr.’s house and carport. When the grocer and his wife, Ann, came home, the pair demanded money at gunpoint. That’s when Francis shot Seldon Dixon. He died 3-1/2 hours later at Jennie Stuart Medical Center.
“Mother drove him to the hospital,” Seldon Dixon explained. “And at the time, she had a car with leather seats. There was just so much blood. You wouldn’t think the human body could hold that much blood. He bled to death.”
Asked about the shooting, Francis said: “It was just one of those spur-of-the moment things. It wasn’t thought-out or anything like that. It just happened.”
Where is redemption?
It is hard not to want to like Francis. He’s a convicted murderer who accepted responsibility for his crime by pleading guilty. He’s quietly serving out his sentence. As his profile as an artist has grown — his latest pieces easily sell for around $2,000 — so have his attempts to make peace with society.
“Easily 80 percent of what’s left after expenses goes to charity,” Harding said of the revenue generated by his pieces. “He could keep 100 percent, but he never has.”
One of several organizations that have benefited from his largesse is Hopkinsville’s Pennyrile Children’s Advocacy Center, which administers to victims of child sexual abuse. Executive director Dawn Tucker said Francis has donated $900 to the group — four donations of $200 each in 2004, and another $100 in 2005.
Tucker took over as executive director in October, and didn’t know of Francis’ criminal past until media began calling when stories about the inmate started circulating in the press a few weeks ago.
“We don’t ask where the donations come from,” she said. “We’re 75 percent grant-funded. Whenever someone wants to make a donation to us, that’s fine.”
Tucker added that Francis’ gift wasn’t the first to come from the Kentucky State Penitentiary. Although it predates her arrival at the center, Tucker said, several inmates presented the organization with a dollhouse they constructed from tongue depressors and Popsicle sticks.
“It’s exquisite,” she said. “It is absolutely beautiful. It’s two stories, and they made furniture and curtains, and it says ‘Pennyrile Children’s Advocacy’ on the outside.”
Still, while Francis’ charitable contributions have made a difference to philanthropic organizations, it’s difficult to forget the true ugliness of his crime. The Dixons were ambushed outside of their own home. It is also hard to believe his claim that the event wasn’t planned in advance. Francis did bring along a large-caliber handgun, which seems to suggest that he and his accomplice understood the encounter might turn violent.
Asked how Harding reconciles Francis’ past with the person he has become, she offers that one of her family members was murdered. She prefers not to share details.
“That’s a bond that Marvin and I share,” she said. “I would pray that the man who killed my cousin was doing something positive
. I would hope he would say, ‘I screwed up big-time and I owe something to the world.’”
Nevertheless, Francis is troubled by one consequence of the media attention that has arisen since he won the art award: the new hurt it has caused to the victim’s family.
“I have a feeling they wish I wouldn’t have been brought up again,” he said.
“I don’t think Francis knew the true motive of what happened that night,” Seldon Dixon Jr. said. “But he had it in him to do what he did. Maybe we all have it in us when we’re on dope or drunk. His artwork doesn’t mean a whole lot to this family.”
It’s one of life’s conundrums. Dixon believes Francis can never atone for his actions on that January night in 1986, and there’s really no refuting that point of view. And yet, life goes on for the living, even incarcerated felons. Surely something can be gained for the world if his art helps prevent history from repeating itself. Francis is working toward redemption, one abused child at a time.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF ROBERTA HARDING